In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Cartography, Mapping, and War

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Journals
  • Edited Volumes
  • Warfare Mapping in the Early Modern Era
  • At the Turn of the Eighteenth Century
  • Nineteenth Century: Mapping in Colonial and Imperial Contexts
  • Cartography of World War I
  • Cartography of WWII
  • Cold War Cartography

Geography Cartography, Mapping, and War
Mirela Altić
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 August 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0264


War always takes place in a spatial context, which makes cartography one of its central tools. However, for a long time, armies were waging wars with few maps, or even no maps at all, relying mostly on mental maps or local guides. A stronger connection between cartography, mapping, and war appears for the first time in the early modern period when, under the pressure of protracted wars and new war techniques (artillery), the relationship between warfare and cartography became closer, not only encouraging the use of maps, but also serving as the biggest stimulus to the development of cartography. The development of warfare strategy, which, over time, grew into a scientific discipline, led to a better education of officers in both map use and mapmaking. A major turn in that regard would take place in the early eighteenth century, when the establishment of military academies, which included surveying and mapmaking in their curricula, enabled the development of military cartography as a separate field of cartography specialized in the production of maps for military purposes. An even closer relationship between mapping and warfare was established in the nineteenth century when specialized national mapping agencies appeared within the military forces. Technical advances in warfare cartography were further spurred by military requirements in the twentieth century. Under the influence of World Wars I and II, mapping for military purposes advanced immensely, not only in the technical sense (due to the application of aerial imagery), but also in regard to the specialization of mapping aimed at trench warfare, aviation combat, and marine warfare. Although WWI military cartography was marked by national productions of different scales, map projections, and measurement units, the global nature of WWII contributed to the unification of different geodetic and cartographic sign systems into a single international standard. The application of photogrammetry and satellite imagery during the Cold War enabled rapid mapping, ensuring complete world coverage at a medium scale. Because of the transition from the analog to the digital age and the development of digital imagery, satellites, and GIS technology, cartography and mapping for military needs underwent massive changes in the late twentieth century.

General Overview

One of the central issues in terms of cartography and warfare arises from the questions of what makes a map a military map and when military cartography first appeared. According to Hale 2007, when defining a military map, one needs to consider both its production and its use. Only after the distinction between cartographic aspects of attack and defense had been clearly defined in the mid-17th century, could one also recognize the distinctive genre of military cartography with more certainty. As defined in Black 2009, the more distinct features of military maps also overlap with the military revolution, the series of changes in military strategy and tactics that appeared in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century, fueling major changes in government and society. While most authors focus on the influence of warfare on cartography, Collier 2015, Cloud 2002, and Black 2023 point out the impact of cartography on warfare and military strategy, an aspect that is often overlooked. Spittaels 2019 highlights the mapping of social and economic aspects of conflicts as an increasingly important topic. Edney 2019 calls for a new reading of maps, opting for a processual approach to analysis, where the production, circulation, and consumption would be equally considered.

  • Black, Jeremy. “A Revolution in Military Cartography? Europe 1650–1815.” The Journal of Military History 73.1 (2009): 49–68.

    The author discusses the military revolution and how it reflects on the production and use of maps in military operations.

  • Black, Jeremy. The Geographies of War. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword Military, 2023.

    A comprehensive analysis of global historical geography of warfare. Special attention is paid to the role of cartography in warfare. Topics addressed are design, content, and technology, as well as the influence of war strategies on trends in military mapping.

  • Cloud, John. “American Cartographic Transformations during the Cold War.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 29 (2002): 261–282.

    DOI: 10.1559/152304002782008422

    An overview of contemporary trends in cartography and its influence on the techniques and outcome of war conflicts from the American perspective.

  • Collier, Peter. “Warfare and Cartography.” In The History of Cartography. Vol. 6, Cartography in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Mark Monmonier, 1696–1700. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    An excellent discussion about the relationship between cartography and warfare. Although focused on the 20th-century advancements, the author gives important remarks on the interaction between war strategies and military cartography in general.

  • Edney, Matthew H. Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226605715.001.0001

    A new approach is offered to understanding maps and mapmaking. The highly intellectual study on cartography demonstrates how maps should be read and understood in the context of their production, circulation, and consumption.

  • Hale, John. “Warfare and Cartography, ca. 1450 to ca. 1640.” In The History of Cartography. Vol. 3, Cartography in the European Renaissance. Edited by David Woodward, 719–736. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

    The author discusses the terminology and definitions related to cartography and warfare in historical and contemporary perspectives.

  • Spittaels, Steven. “Conflict Motivation Mapping: A Tool to Analyse the Relative Importance of Armed Groupsʼ Motivations.” PhD diss., Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Antwerp, 2019.

    A very interesting work that represents the methodology for analyzing motivation for ongoing conflicts by using georeferenced data on conflict events and strategic interests.

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